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Remaining focused on any one strategy, project or task can prove challenging in today's new normal. Volatility is the new norm, and so it becomes easy to get caught up in the highs and lows of organizational life. For example, if your company is having a rough month due to volatility, management can begin to panic which causes deviations from the critical path to the latest crisis.
Soon, you are deterred from the project altogether as resources are lean and can only focus in so many places at once. Most major change initiatives, new product launches, cost savings programs, customer collaboration programs and the like are accomplished through projects. Thus, it behooves us to remain committed to the critical path – and ultimate project success.
What can you do to increase your chances of success? Stick to the critical path. The critical path includes the essential tasks that have the ability to delay the entire project and make it veer off the path. Thus, my most successful clients find ways to ensure the focus remains on the critical path. Some of the successful approaches include the following:
- It starts at the top: As with success overall, it is most easily deterred from the top. Make sure your executives know the critical path. Often, by taking the step to make the critical path clear to executives, the project has a significantly greater chance of success. For example, if a manager has a conflict with a critical path item, the executives will support the critical path if they understand the importance.
- Communicate the critical path to the project team: Certainly the project team has to fully understand the critical path. When it comes to fighting the daily battles and focusing attention, the project team is in the thick of it. If they understand the priority of the critical path, the project has a much greater chance of success.
- Make it visual: As is popular in Lean circles, make the critical path visual. The more it is apparent to everyone what tasks are a part of the critical path and the progress on those tasks, the more likely they'll be to gain attention and receive priority. Put them on the walls. Be creative in how you make the critical path visual.
- Follow up with task owners prior to starting dates: The project manager should follow up with critical path task owners prior to their task starting. They should ask about resources, potential bottlenecks, etc. I find that critical path task owners know many of the likely issues ahead of time; however, if no one asks, they might not be communicating them. Ask questions in advance.
- Remind task owners just prior to start dates: Even if you engage with the task owner to talk through what is upcoming, doesn't mean they will remember at the “right” time. Typically task owners have multiple jobs and responsibilities. If they aren't thinking about the critical path at the time, they are likely to delay until the issue or project their boss is asking about is complete. A personal reminder can go a long way!
- Critical path transition: When moving from one critical path task to another, think about what would make it a smooth transition. Similar to running a relay race, it is important to have a code worked out in advance and to know each other well enough so that you can make up time or modify based upon the critical path task before or after you. Have you thought about the importance of collaboration?
- Critical path post completion follow-up: One way to ensure communications throughout the critical path is to complete a post-task follow-up. What was successful and helped to speed up progress or improve the result? What happened that could be improved? If you gain this type of feedback rapidly, you can incorporate it into later critical path tasks. Why wait until the next project?
- Monitor metrics: As with all projects and business, remember to focus on metrics. What core metrics should you measure to get a feel for whether the critical path is on track and whether the project team is achieving the objectives thus far? Put your heads together to identify these metrics and find a way to measure progress. It could be as simple as talking with critical path owners or talking with the recipients of the critical path tasks. Or it could be slightly more complex with numerical metrics. Find something that is meaningful and measure progress.
- Critical path milestones: Although it is easy to get caught up in a maze of tasks and to-do lists, don't take your eyes off of your critical path milestones. Which tasks are more important and signify an output? Keep them in mind and focus on those actions that will contribute specifically towards achieving these critical path milestones.
- Final result: Last but not least, remember that you must be getting closer to the end result of the project. Whether you complete 2 or 200 tasks, it won't matter unless the end result occurs.
Since executives consider projects a critical contributor to growing the business and delivering bottom line results, remaining focused on the most important tasks to achieving these end results is vital. Thus, leverage these strategies to keep focused on the critical path and continually search for additional options. Success will follow.